Always Operate in Beta: And Other Insights from a Public Service Innovator
Dustin currently serves as Chief Innovation Officer for e.Republic, a media holding company producing “smarter media for public sector innovation.” He is an innovation junkie, like all of us at BIF, and especially aligned with BIF’s Citizen Experience Lab, where we are helping public service industry leaders explore and test next practices and new business models.
Because the public service industry, and government generally, is considered the last frontier of innovation, I took particular interest in their conversation, especially Dustin’s view on size of place, technology, and the role of citizens in transformational new models.
Here are a few of the insights that I found particularly promising:
Government can be a microcosm of many industries, making it a great place to experiment.
Too often, we focus on an institution’s weaknesses versus its strengths. The truth is that while there are many things that government isn’t traditionally, it also houses many industry sectors — from healthcare to education to venture. This makes it a uniquely good place to experiment on a couple of fronts. First, the small scale of these “microcosms” enable the right scale for experimentation — large enough to cover the subject, but small enough to see all the parts in action. Second, the most innovative ideas are often found in the grey space between industries — and government might be the container that enables innovators to play with more diverse parts.
Often, we hear that innovation can happen in big places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, or Boston, but it is constrained in smaller cities. According to Dustin, small cities need to innovate just as much, if not more so, than their larger counterparts. Embracing constraints can actually be a key ingredient to innovation. By forcing yourself to work within constraints, you’re required to think more creatively. Relatedly, BIF’s CXL just wrote about this in the context of the recent federal budget cuts, which would be easier to handle if we had leaders more adept at exploring and testing next practices and new business models.
All large institutions move slowly.
Speed of innovation, or more appropriately the lack thereof, is not unique to government. Nevertheless, there is definitely a myth that government innovation moves more slowly than others. Dustin, however, believes that the critical lever of change here is that mindsets, and the workforce more generally, are shifting. Start-ups developing products to serve the public service industry are a signal of government’s demand and interest in getting better faster. The challenge, of course, can be the political cycle. While some may argue that the short cycles force a focus on a smaller incremental change, Dustin believes that we can accelerate all forms of innovation by codifying practices and embedding innovation into the DNA of the organization. All too often, innovation can be treated as a separate silo; it needs to be connected such that learnings and capabilities can flow fluidly between experimental work and core work.
Beware of shiny object syndrome.
Customer experience is everything. Technology is only in service of delivering the experience. Technology can enable the right experience, but it is important to recognize that it is an experience problem. Most great problems are not technology problems. Today, there are so many ways that people interact with government — a tech based experience can only address a portion of that. Successful government innovations will be built around the needs (at BIF, we would say “the Job of the customer”) of the citizen, contextually relevant to the individual. When governments think in terms of experiences, it can solve the problem in a way larger than government needs to solve it.
Always operate in beta.
As we like to say, the innovator’s job is never done. This is not because there are too many problems to solve; it is because we must constantly innovate in order to remain relevant and address the constantly changing needs of a changing population. The trick, according to Dustin, is to “always operate in beta.” Imagine that you are constantly iterating on, and improving your experiments. This will keep you tuned into the job that needs to be done and consistently getting better faster.
Tweaks versus transformation.
In the early days of innovation in government, it was very focused on tweaks. Cities hosted “hack-a-thons,” using bright minds, pizza, and compressed time to rapidly create point solutions to a number of problems. At some point, public service leaders started realizing that they could hack the process altogether. Today, we’re starting to see agencies build capacity to test transformational models in new ways. There is still a lot of risks, and Dustin advises considering an investment approach — taking calculated risks by investing capital (political and financial) judiciously in a variety of experiments. The goal is to make innovation safer and easier. Institutions should create safe places (we call them Connect Adjacents) for innovation to grow, e.g. Boston’s New Urban Mechanics. That said, even in smaller cities, leaders can make innovation safer. Pass an ordinance proclaiming an innovation resolution to complete one or two experiments each month. This will ultimately begin to change habits and build the capacity to experiment over and over again.
The upshot of Dustin’s interview is that the rules of being a public servant are changing, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do big things, regardless of where we are. This is as true for leaders sitting in government institutions as it is for citizens. Citizens are called to be innovators too, using their collective power to meaningfully engage with government.
We’ll have the opportunity to hear from Dustin again at BIF2017, where he’ll be part of an amazing storyteller lineup. Join us!
Market maker, system thinker, & foodie.